A hand formed pillow of sweet, vinegared sushi rice just the right size for a greedy mouthful or two dainty bites, with a glossy green perimeter wall of toasty seaweed surrounding it, holding back a cascade of glistening, salty, baubles like an overfilled treasure chest bursting at its seams. A relative newcomer to the world of sushi, gunkan maki- or battleship rolls- were created in the 1940s with one purpose in mind- to hold in the soft, loose ingredients that had been missing from menus for too long. The tall boundary of nori confines some of the most coveted toppings (but also daunting in the eyes of many westerners): creamy, saline oysters; savoury, pungent nattō; the smooth, delicate roe of sea urchins; and our favourite- tumbling mounds of spherical, translucent, jewel-like fish eggs.
The eggs used for topping gunkan maki vary tremendously from the large red and orange ikura and sujiko roe of the pacific salmon, to the tiny, crunchy tobiko flying fish roe; masago from smelt and ebiko shrimp roes are also popular, with sturgeon caviar even making an appearance from time to time in modern restaurants. Whichever roe you choose, they all make a delightful morsel, packed with unique flavours and textures unlike those found anywhere else on the sushi menu, and often made even more special by the addition of the yolk from a quails egg, the rich creamy taste smoothing out the briny, ocean notes of the roe and creating a simple, harmonious sauce for the sushi.
- 200g Japanese rice
- 30ml rice vinegar
- 15g caster sugar
- 3g fine sea salt
- 200g fish eggs of your choice: ikura, tobiko, masago, uni, ebiko, or an assortment
- quail eggs (optional), one per gunkan maki
- 3-4 sheets nori
- wasabi to serve
- gari (pickled ginger) to serve
- soy sauce to serve
- Place the rice in a bowl in your sink and add plenty of water, ten centimetres above the level of the rice. Using both of your hands, swirl the rice around in the water, then rub the grains between your palms in a circular motion. Repeat this step a few times until you think you’ve rubbed all of the grains and the water has turned very cloudy with starch. Drain off the water, then add fresh water and repeat this whole process two more times. When you’re happy that your rice is clean and free of loose starch, drain well and transfer to a saucepan along with 280ml cold water.
- Cover the pan with a lid and over a high heat bring it to the boil- this should take three to five minutes. When the water has come to the boil, turn the heat as low as it will go and leave to cook for another ten minutes. When the ten minutes is up, turn the heat off but don’t remove the lid from your pan. Let the rice steam undisturbed for a further ten to fifteen minutes before removing the lid. Dissolve the sugar and salt in the rice vinegar then fold it into the hot rice. When thoroughly mixed, spread the rice out as thinly as you can and allow it to completely cool down.
- While your rice is cooling, trim each sheet of nori into 4cm wide strips with a pair of kitchen scissors and prepare an area to assemble your sushi in; you’ll also need a bowl of cold water with a splash of rice vinegar in to keep your hands wet whilst shaping the rice.
- Take a small amount of rice, about the size of a ping pong ball and gently shape it using your wetted hands into a pillow approximately 5cm by 3cm. Place the shaped rice on a strip of nori and wrap the seaweed around to completely surround the rice leaving an overhang at the top- this will be the wall to hold in your fish eggs- pressing lightly as you wrap to ensure the nori sticks to the rice. Any overlap of nori can be sealed easily with a small dab of the vinegar water acting as an adhesive. Spoon a mound of roe into the top of your gunkan maki then move onto the next piece and continue until you have used all of your rice. If you are using the optional quails eggs, gently push aside some of the fish roe with a teaspoon to create a hollow; separate the white from the yolk and slide the raw yolk into place atop the sushi.
- Serve with the ubiquitous sushi accompaniments of pickled ginger, a dab of wasabi and a bowl of soy sauce for seasoning.
Makes 12-14 gunkan maki, enough for four people as a sushi course.